Is Fracking Causing Earthquakes?

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FILE - In this April 23, 2010 file photo, workers move a section of well casing into place at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site near Burlington, Pa., in Bradford County. So vast is the wealth of natural gas locked into dense rock deep beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio that some geologists estimate it's enough to supply the entire East Coast for 50 years. But freeing it requires a powerful drilling process called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking,"using millions of gallons of water brewed with toxic chemicals that some fear threaten to pollute water above and below ground, deplete aquifers and perhaps endanger human health and the environment. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson, File)
Workers move a section of well casing into place at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site near Burlington, Pa., in Bradford County. (AP Photo/Ralph Wilson, File)

In Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio and other states, people who have rarely experienced earthquakes in the past are getting used to them as a fairly common phenomenon. This dramatic uptick in tremors is related to drilling for oil and natural gas, several reports find. And the growing popularity of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is in part to blame.

Between 1970 and 2000, there was an average of 20 earthquakes per year within the central and eastern United States. Between 2010 and 2013, there was an average of more than 100 earthquakes annually. A United States Geological Survey released last month summarized research on man-made earthquakes conducted by one of the agency’s geophysicists:

USGS scientists have found that at some locations the increase in seismicity coincides with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells. Much of this wastewater is a byproduct of oil and gas production and is routinely disposed of by injection into wells specifically designed for this purpose.

So, the actual hydraulic fracturing process itself is not to blame in these cases; instead, it’s the injection of wastewater into deep wells that accompanies it.

Hydraulic fracturing produces a higher volume of wastewater than traditional drilling — as the name implies, drillers use millions of gallons of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals to break apart rock and release gas trapped in pockets in the earth. The wastewater generated is often contaminated with salt or poisonous chemicals, and environmental regulations bar drilling companies from allowing it to mix with drinking water; oftentimes, the most economical way for these companies to  dispose of it is to sequester it deep in the ground, below aquifers. Once there, it changes pressure underground and lubricates fault lines, with the potential effect of causing earthquakes.

In both Texas and Oklahoma, the number of earthquakes per year has increased ten-fold. And wells storing wastewater from fracking have also been linked to hundreds of earthquakes near Youngstown, Ohio.

Studies last year found that the largest quake ever recorded in Oklahoma — which was felt 800 miles away in Milwaukee, Wis., damaged 14 homes, injured two people and buckled a highway — could be linked to wastewater injection. Damage from the quake, which measured 5.6 on the Richter scale, “would be much worse if it were to happen in a more densely populated area,” the USGS wrote.

Chad Devereaux works at cleaning up the bricks that fell from three sides of his in-laws home in Sparks, Okla., Nov. 6, 2011, after two earthquakes hit the area in less than 24 hours. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

And as quakes increase in frequency, residents of Oklahoma and Texas are taking notice. More noticeable than the shaking, for many, is the noise these quakes make: a loud boom, like artillery fire.

In the Netherlands, where the Groningen gas field lies, quakes have also become more frequent, increasing from about 20 each year before 2011 to an average of one per week. Shell and Exxon Mobile, active in the gas field, set aside $130 million to strengthen buildings as the quakes increased in severity. But residents of the area worried that a 4-or-5 magnitude earthquake –the likelihood of which, experts warned, is increasing — would threaten the integrity of the country’s dikes, which protect the low-lying northern Netherlands.

Last month, the country’s government decided to scale back production of natural gas on the Groningen field, foregoing one billion euros a year by 2016, even as the country struggles to cope with the European Union’s deficit reduction targets.

But similar reductions in the US are unlikely. The oil and gas industry employs hundreds of thousands of people in both Texas and Oklahoma, and natural gas has become widely popular among electric utilities for its low cost.

John Light is a writer and journalist sometimes based in New York. He writes a lot about climate policy, both inside and outside of the US. He was a former associate digital producer for Moyers & Company. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, and has been included in ProPublica's #MuckReads collection. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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  • NJHope

    John Light,
    Congratulations for being allowed to work with one of the most ethical, shining Stars this United States of America has ever known, Bill Moyers. I hope you appreciate just how lucky you are. If I had the opportunity to work with him, I’d do just about anything to make it happen. You lucky devil, you!

  • Fred

    5 “booms” today just in past 6 hours. There is an obvious correlation as we never had these quakes in Edmond Ok before fracking began…..and they’re getting much more frequent still. Time to end the fracking before a real catastrophic event unfolds.

  • JJ042804

    If Corporations keep doing this, there wont be a Earth left to live on. It seems they forgetting that the Planets core is not solid. Weakening Earths crust could have some serious consequences.

  • Anonymous

    Should not the title of this be Ed Rendell and Wicked Leaders Back Their Own Pocket Book.

    THE PEOPLE need to send Ed Rendell and all local officials that have
    anything to do with Poisoning are ground and water a message stop
    worrying get to love Jail.


    Hydraulic Fracturing a Danger to us All.

    Why would anyone think we have water to waste.

    one forgot to tell all about all the poison chemicals that this ungodly
    Lisa P. Jackson gave a green light to put in are ground and water.
    And help the Industry, so to they will never
    have to disclose all the poison chemicals
    they have used. Thank GOD Texas overturned this unjust

    Only the wicked in mind Leaders in this Nation and
    around the world would let anyone
    Pipe Pollution into the
    ground to get gas in return from the Ground.
    Most all scientist have know this for many years that this will end
    safe drinking water for all that are in the area of where they are
    fracturing, in which Millions of Gallons of Dangerous Poison Chemically
    Treated Water are forced underground to break up rock and make gas from

    We need regulations from GODLY People that will stop
    10,000+ wells a year drilled using hydraulic fracturing to free and make
    the Dangerous Poison Chemicals underground into gas. The primarily
    affect will be unsafe drinking water and many will become sick.

    HEALTH OF MANY WILL DETERIORATE because of A Few Wicked Greedy Leaders.
    Those who have made these decisions do not know Jesus Christ. Soon He
    will say i know you not. They belong in jail soon it will be hell for
    them. What sick in mind would let or want anyone to put Dangerous Poison
    Chemicals underground or into the ground anywhere.

    The wicked are trying to sell and tell all if it is not
    near your
    home or land it
    is safe. This is the biggest ling of horse manure. Do they think most of We The People are that dumb or that most Americans lack any intelligence
    at all. What ever is put on or in the ground makes it way to our
    underground Aquifers, Rivers, Lakes and the Oceans. Every Scientist on
    Earth knows this and most all that have made it to eighth grade in

    So why would any Leader with a good healthy mind ever say or want this?

    any wicked that has anything to do with this out of office they work
    for WE THE PEOPLE. Then need to go to jail. Soon it will be not jail but
    Hell. Revelation 11:18

    Wicked Leaders
    telling their friends as long as you can cover it up and it will not get
    back to me it is ok with me. Are you sure we will not go to jail for
    making money by Polluting the ground and water. Of course not we make
    the laws to fit our needs not the health and welfare of others or as
    they used to say We The People. Its now the Wicked Leaders and rich
    Rule. Till our Lord GOD comes!

    Solar Energy the way to go.
    Many States Are and are Banning Fracking or Fracturing.

    Banned Hydraulic Fracturing




    South Africa




    Aotearoa (New Zealand)

    Nova Scotia


    Mora County New Mexico enacted a ban, as well as a resolution to change
    the state constitution to put community rights above corporations.

    The State of Vermont

    The list is to long, to list all that have

    Banned Hydraulic Fracturing.

    Archimedes and
    Albert Einstein These two are at the top of the list of the World’s
    Greatest Scientists, Viewed by Scientist around the World.

    Sad that for the last 25 years or so of every teacher asked no matter
    what Grade k through 16. At least 80% of them did not know Archimedes.

    Even sadder 90% of them could not tell you what one of the most Brilliant Scientist to ever live on Earth.
    Won the Nobel Prize for.
    It was for the work Albert Einstein did to show the World it could get Free Energy, Electric from
    the SUN.

    We still do not teach this to are YOUNG in SCHOOLS why?

    Church’s all over the Globe have Gone SOLAR why have not are SCHOOLS ?

    There is enough Energy from our SUN to power all are needs and more. Albert Einstein

    United We Stand In GOD We Trust

    The Lord’s Little Helper
    Paul Felix

  • NJHope

    What about sink holes? Has anyone investigated the possible causes of so many new ones?

    Our water resources are drying up or being poisoned. Why do Americans think the Bush family bought that massive amount of land, right over the top of a super major aquifer in S. America? Just a coinkydink?

  • David William Rutledge

    and the reason we cannot develop more efficient, clean, relatively cheap solar energy is because……? Answer: because it is efficient, clean and relatively cheap. Where would billionaires could their billions from? How would they be able to buy the Congress they want? Think of the injustice.

  • Anonymous

    I’m with you but sadly, it’s too late now. The future tragedies that will occur because of today’s Fracking are unavoidable.

  • Jack Haesly

    Of course they are.

  • Elissa Jury

    Nice explanations of why the earthquakes are occurring.

  • Anonymous

    Sinkholes can be formed by underground water erosion and dissolution.
    Coal power stations produce sulfur dioxide, nitric oxide and carbon dioxide and these acidify rain.
    When that rain falls, it dissolves limestone rocks and over time it can make really big holes and caves.
    Guess what Florida is made of.

  • Sarah Morison

    Hey, but as long as CEOs can earn millions in compensation every year for doing this, and thereby have plenty of money for their families to live the high life, then why should they care about future generations? Capitalism gone berserk will be the end of us all.

  • JJ042804

    We should try to stop them. :/ Some already work on it, but we need to do it together and in any way we can.

  • 16 TONS

    coming from a region known for its century old blind devotion to the extraction industry and now continues to wait for the unbridled prosperity promised of the 2009 Marcellus Shale BOOM – it is clear that deep well injection is simply an effective way to displace the responsibility of its outcome onto the american public (again).

    Earthquakes (regardless of how they are propagated) are referred to “acts of nature” which allows these Lex Luthor styled Corporations to have the perfect excuse to avoid liability – “prove it” – meaning that insurance companies make the payouts (if you had the foresight to buy insurance in your historically stable region).

    Instead these users of injection wells need to be paying into a national fund to aid in the remediation of this type of damage – this is something the Coal industry does to a certain degree but in reality as one expects poorly administrates.

  • Anonymous

    I am wondering what the effect of fracking has on water levels.

  • Anthony Endres

    Certainly! Everything is relatively harmless in smaller scale, but increase the scale extremely and Voila, you will get extremes.
    And truly only greed-run idiots would not be able to reproduce and cognitively understand the things involved in a continues fracturing within a normally closed process under extreme gravitational pressure and duress in such depths.

    Or auf simple Deutsch: Ihr Amerikanern weisst wie üblich nicht was ihr macht.

  • Anthony Endres

    The tree-fold effect are depletion of water levels, poisons the ground water, where the first leads to the continuos collapse of many things above into the fractured empty basins below..

  • JJ042804

    We “can” stop it, we just have to work together and push our Politicians to do the right thing. We need to say, “enough is enough”!!!!

  • Anonymous

    It’s Obama’s fault!

  • David Yost

    The real reason is that it’s still to expensive.
    Did you put a solar array on your roof?

  • Anonymous

    Ihr Europäer wie üblich verallgemeinern, um Ihren Hass auf amerikanische Erfolgs unterstützen.

  • Douglas Charles Freeman

    So I guess most of the fracking is done in central and e. Okla?

  • Anonymous

    Tried to vote down but wasn’t able to. Fracking is not Obama’s fault.

  • NJHope

    Like you said, people like Ed Rendell have sold out the nation. I don’t care how much blue he puts on to sit in front of Chris Matthews or any other idiotic pundit, I will not listen to another word out of that man’s mouth. I shut it off, as soon as I see his ugly, self-riteous, deceiving face. He is no Democrat. Not now, nor was he ever. He sold out.